Facebook’s had an awful year. Frankly, it would be tedious to recount the details. If you are so inclined, you can read Wired’s summary of “the 21 (and counting) biggest Facebook Scandals of 2018.”
The latest round of bad news for Facebook came when the Times reported that the platform granted over 150 companies special access to user data, apparently circumventing stated privacy guidelines and giving the lie once again to their purported desire to give users complete control over their data.
I’m not sure whether these stories even register anymore with those outside the tech journalism/tech criticism/privacy scholarship world. I do see, however, through my small Twitter-sized window into that world, that this story has occasioned another round of debate about the efficacy of deleting Facebook.
More than one tech journalist has re-tweeted a link to Siva Viadhyanathan’s Times op-ed from March of this year urging us not to delete Facebook but, rather, to do something about it. To which claim my inner monologue immediately rejoins, quitting is doing something. Moreover, how difficult is it to imagine quitting Facebook and doing something about it in the way that these kinds of arguments suggest. You know, quit and call your representative or whatever.
The underlying idea here seems to be that there is no future world where Facebook doesn’t exist. We must stay on because leaving is a luxury and we would be abandoning all of those who do not have such a luxury. This assumes that the platform can sustain good faith efforts to speak and defend the truth, etc. That seems, at best, wildly optimistic.
Alternatively, the assumption may also be that what Facebook provides is, generally speaking, a good thing, but, unfortunately, this “good” service is provided by a “bad” company. The point, then, is to somehow preserve the service while making the company better by means to which companies tend to be more responsive (regulation, law suits, etc.).
I’ve written a bit about Facebook over the years—too much, frankly. At just this moment, I’m rather annoyed that I’ve given Facebook as much attention as I have. This summer I wrote a review of Viadhyanathan’s fine book on Facebook for The New Atlantis, and I commented here on the #DeleteFacebook debate from earlier this year.
In the review, I argued that we should consider the possibility that the service Facebook provides, even if it were delivered by a “good” company, would still be an individually and politically debilitating reality. In the post, I tried to make the case that whatever other action is taken with regards to Facebook, the choice of some to delete their accounts should not be derided or discouraged.
Maybe the lesson we are to take from the last two years is not simply that surveillance capitalism is bad news but also that the kind of ubiquitous connectivity upon which it is built is also bad news. This, it seems, is somehow unthinkable to us. To some damning degree, we seem to agree with Zuckerberg’s ideology of connection, most stridently articulated in the infamous Bosworth memo (also this year!). We’ve bought into the idea that digitally connecting people is somehow an unalloyed and innocent good.
This recalls Alan Jacobs’ point from a couple of years back: “So there is a relationship between distraction and addiction, but we are not addicted to devices. As Brooke’s Snapchat story demonstrates, we are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers.” (Although, as we now understand more clearly, the design of the devices and platforms is not irrelevant either.)
I would also suggest that the very stickiness of the platform, the very way it leads us generate nuanced and dubious arguments as a rationale for remaining, this by itself should impel us to cut our ties.
So, look, just delete it. At the very least, let’s not give anyone grief for doing so. They are doing something. And I’m not convinced that what they’re doing isn’t, in fact, the most efficacious action we can take. They are willing to believe what we should all consider more seriously, that we can make do just fine in a world without Facebook.